The ID@Xbox program certainly doesn’t have any shortage of shoot em ups (or shmups as the genre is commonly called) in its catalogue, so finding one that stands out among the crowd can be a little difficult. Somehow, though, the four man crew at Donley Time Foundation have managed to create just that. Their retro inspired shmup, Boss 101, shakes up the classic genre by offering up thirty one procedurally generated levels while also giving the player the choice to roll and reroll the level’s primary antagonist. Each boss is made up of 5 functioning parts, and Boss 101 offers so many variations of these pieces that there are literally millions of potential boss combinations for players to take down. No two boss battles ever play out the same.
Boss 101’s narrative is rooted equally in science fiction and the absurd as it tells the story of the plucky hero, Max, and his sentient jetpack sidekick, S.T.E.V.E. An alien robot uprising has led to an all out war that left Max’s home planet barely stitched together. In an effort to fight back against the robot invaders Max and S.T.E.V.E. must gain control of a multitude of warp gates. Each gate is, as to be expected, guarded by a boss. Max and S.T.E.V.E, with the help of the Professor (a gopher with a penchant for paraphrasing Moby Dick) can access the warp gates’ Make a Boss system and switch up the guardians for the take down. In the Make a Boss screen, players have a wealth of information about the boss that the game has randomly generated from a massive collection of possibilities. The more difficulty a boss is to eliminate, the higher the bounty that the parts rack up. Players can choose to take on the very first boss that is generated, or they can hit the “Make a Boss” button as many times as they’d like until the system generates a gatekeeper to their liking.
Along with the parts and value of the boss, the Make a Boss screen also tells the player which, if any, additional weapons that the boss may be weak or immune to. This information can be vital, as rushing into a battle at a gate where a boss is immune to fire while Max is equipped with a flamethrower means you can expect a time investment in taking down the boss. Unfortunately, time is not on Max’s side as each attack on a boss is held to a time constraint. That said, Boss 101 does seek out to be a shmup that is widely accessible, and there are options to customize your play experience. This customization comes primarily in the form of Max’s hats, with the player able to choose from a collection spanning more than 275 costumes. Each costume comes packed with its own set of abilities – from infinite time to increased health to special damage resistances.
While most games with such a variety of costumes leave players stuck in a pit where they must choose between picking a skin for their character that they enjoy or choosing the one with perks and abilities that are most useful, Boss 101 dares to allow players to wear two of the game’s “hats”. One hat is dedicated to Max’s costume, and players can take their pick of whether Max looks like a character that is only a couple steps away from copyright infringement like the two unmarked Care Bears, the humorously named Thoron, or the pocket watch faced Time Lord. After pressing X to select a character skin, players can then choose the same hat, or a different one, in order to set Max’s ability without compromising his appearance. It is worth mentioning, however, that even though players can change Max’s hat to a female character model the NPCs that he interacts with will continue to refer to him with male pronouns such as ‘sir’.
If thirty one levels of randomly generated boss battles across nine different beautifully pixelated worlds isn’t enough to satisfy your shmup cravings, Boss 101 also throws in two different Endless mode variations. One mode allows for the drops of different weapons and health power ups to keep you in the game longer, whereas the other merely throws you in with a jetpack and a prayer. Both modes are helpful enough as to allow for the player’s health and special nuke weapons to recharge up between the next boss onslaught. If Endless mode leaves you feeling like you’ve had too much shmup action and you need a breather, there’s more modes for you to check out. The first a hardcore collection of classic arcade mini games including the likes of Breakout and Tank Wars. It’s incredibly easy to lose an hour or two just mindlessly playing Breakout in the arcade. Which makes the fact that there are future plans by the developers to bring a standalone version of Boss 101’s mini games to the Xbox One in the future that much more exciting.
If shmuping and mini gaming is still too much excitement for you, then there’s the uber relaxing Kite Hill where players can go to watch Max and S.T.E.V.E fly a kite and discuss literally everything. Boss 101’s dialogue is well written and humorous, even if it does feel at times as if the characters are trying a little too hard to shoehorn in jokes about their own super-meta self awareness. Despite eventually reaching a point where I was simply nodding my head and spamming A to move along the next line of S.T.E.V.E. monologues about an existential crisis because he is aware of his own meta, I did still giggle when the Bosses would say something along the lines of “Ed, Edd, and Eddy sucked. Fight me.”